MONTPELIER — Vermont is relaxing its guidelines to allow more people to be tested for COVID-19, as part of an aggressive containment strategy that has been shown to slow the spread of the coronavirus in other countries, state Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine announced.
In addition, the state has created a COVID-19 patient test site at Landmark College in Putney. This site is being established to provide additional testing capacity for people who have a referral from their health care provider, and began operating Sunday.
The Landmark College site will be operated by the medical division of the Vermont National Guard. The hours, and for how many days the site is open, will depend on the availability of testing supplies, the Health Department said.
Health officials said that health care providers will be informed as other temporary pop-up, drive-through and other facilities are established.
Levine said the Health Department is updating its guidelines to doctors to allow more latitude in testing. "Tests will still be prioritized and patients who have no symptoms will not be tested," he said. "But people who have only mild or moderate symptoms will have more opportunity to be tested now."
He emphasized that people cannot simply show up at a testing site or drive-through location. Everyone must still talk with their health care provider and be formally referred for testing.
Levine said the ramp-up in testing is made possible by Vermont's "very aggressive procurement strategy" for the collection and testing kits, which have been in short supply. He said the state was helped by "people in high places with connections to Vermont, and have some understanding of what Vermont is going through," but did not identify them.
The kits are being provided to hospitals and federally qualified health centers.
"The objective here is to identify more COVID-positive patients early, isolate them and slow the spread of the virus," Levine said. "The overall strategy is test, isolate, do contact tracing on people that person was around, and then quarantine those contacts as appropriate."
Other countries have demonstrated that early and broad testing works in slowing the spread of the virus, "and Vermont is still early enough on the curve that this strategy may be effective," he said.
The current "stay home, stay safe" order issued by Gov. Phil Scott on March 24 makes this a perfect opportunity for this approach, he said.
He said the Department of Public Safety would be mobilizing more contact tracing teams, to identify and alert people who may be COVID-19 positive.
Levine said the state is committed to "full bore" testing, even if it eventually leaves the state short of supplies. "This is really the critical juncture, while everybody is, if you will, abiding by the stay-at-home, stay-safe policy," he said.
He added that the state is pursuing "multiple strategies" to secure an adequate supply of test kits. "We may eventually need federal help," he said, "but we're not counting on that."
Levine said that within the first week of the coronavirus outbreak, "we all at the Health Department saw the wisdom in trying to find out how pervasive this virus was within our population," but lacked the needed resources and permissions. At that time, the federal Centers for Disease Control had only begun validating protocols and allowing states to conduct tests.
According to the Health Department, as of Sunday, 3,701 Vermonters have been tested for COVID-19, about 0.59 percent of the state's population of 624,000. That's about three times the rate for the United States as a whole, where the death rate from the illness has been about 1.5 percent.
Other countries with more robust testing have reported low death rates from the virus. According to The Washington Post, in Germany, more than 0.5 percent of the population has been tested, and the death rate is just half a percent.
SVMC drive up
In Bennington, the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center suspended its drive-up testing more than a week ago, so that its limited supply of test kits could be reserved for priority cases: hospitalized patients, health care workers who have symptoms and vulnerable populations such as the elderly. No one from SVMC was available Friday to discuss the new Health Department guidelines.
The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. People who smoke or vape - tobacco, cannabis or anything else - are at much greater risk of severe illness, or even death, the Health Department said.
Vermont reported 235 COVID-19 cases and 12 deaths as of Sunday afternoon. Half of the cases were in Chittenden County, according to the Health Department, with 16 cases in Bennington County and 11 in Windham County.
According to the CDC, symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, and shortness of breath. These symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure.
For up-to-date information and guidance for staying healthy and preventing the spread of illness, visit healthvermont.gov/covid19.